Today’s post will look at the crises of a woman in a married life, including adultery, divorce, widowhood, and the issues surrounding levirate marriage
First, we look at adultery: a Jewish man could only commit adultery by sexual intercourse with a woman already married. Jesus differed with this general Jewish stance by arguing for strict monogamy (Luke 16:18; Matthew 5:32). The Hebrew Bible prescribes death for adultery (cf. Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:20-21); but Jewish traditions varied on this law’s implementation (cf. Susanna 44-45; 2 Enoch 71:6-7; Matthew 1:18-25).
What then about the suspected adulteress, the Sotah? How to prove adultery? The Hebrew Bible stipulates a ceremony of drinking “bitter waters” that will work to prove the guilt or innocence of the woman (Numbers 5:11-31). By the time of the rabbinic documents, the ceremony was revoked; it is very likely that at the time of Jesus the ceremony was being hotly debated or was on its way out as a form of establishing innocence or guilt (cf. mSotah 5:1; 9:9; tSotah 14:2, 9). Its efficacy, obviously, was questioned. Joseph’s dilemma about Mary belongs in this context.
Some thought the waters were also testing the male (mSotah 5:1) and they came to the view that, if the husband was free from sin, the ceremony would work (bYebamot 58a; bSotah 28a). Some rabbis thought if the woman had “merit”, the punishment of the waters would delay punishment for a period (sometimes years)(mSotah 3:4-5). Since “merit” was connected with Torah-knowledge, R. Eliezer then states that teaching one’s daughter the Torah can lead to sexual promiscuity (mSotah 3:4).
A later rabbinic debate concerned the ceremony as obligation or option: “ [quoting Numbers 5:14 and then commenting] ‘and a jealous spirit came over him’: This means that it is voluntary [to subject one’s wife to the bitter waters], in the opinion of R. Ishmael; but in the opinion of R. Eliezer, he is obligated” (Sifre Numbers 7).
Second, divorce: the inefficiency of the “test of bitter waters” led to a greater emphasis and practice of divorce.
Divorce as demand: some sages demanded divorce for a variety of practices: R. Judah the Patriarch demanded divorce for the appearance of unchastity. Remarriage to the first wife was sometimes permitted (mGittin 4:7). Divorce was expensive for the man had to return the ketubbah. Was it primarily upper class?
There was also the issue of the sufficient cause for divorce proceedings: Deuteronomy 24:1-4 (erwat debar, unclean thing) became the exegetical ground for debates. Shammai: sexual immorality; Hillel: anything he doesn’t like; Akiba: finding a more attractive woman (mGittin 9:10).
Others thought divorce was always bad “and the very altar sheds tears for him” (bSanhedrin 22a). This is the case with Jesus and the Dead Sea Sect.
Stance of the texts: divorce, in Judaism, was determined by the husband, not the wife (Josephus, Antiquities 15:259; mYebamot 14:1). But there is evidence that some men were forced to grant divorce: for affliction with boils and protruding polyps, for collecting dog dung, or for working as coppersmith or tanner (mKetubot 7:10). In fact, there is evidence in Judaism for women abandoning their husbands (though surely they lost their ketubbah): Josephus, Antiquities 18:110-112; Vita 415; bBabba Mesia 84b).
Third, a considerable issu was widowhood: a widow was among the weakest members of society, unless she had an unusually large ketubbah. Remarriage was the standard recommendation of the rabbis. Death, however, had to be proven; until then the wife was in a state of aggunah (mYebamot 16:5-7; bYebamot 115a, 126a). Some saw the state of widowhood in idealistic terms: Judith; Luke 2:36-38; Acts 9:39; yShabbat 10:5.
Fourth, what about Yibbum (Levirate marriage)? If a husband dies, the husband’s brother is to marry his widow (cf. Deuteronomy 25:5-10; Genesis 38:8-10; Ruth 4:5-6; Mark 12:19-25). This law was practiced (mYebamot 8:4; bYebamot 15a-b) though humane exceptions were developed. However, another alternative evolved by the 2d-3d c. CE: halitzah. Here the brother legally stated his preference not to marry the widow and frees her to remarry (mBekhorot 1:7; bKetubot 64a).